If you think about it, we are given a license or certificate when we master something like driving or CPR. Yet, adults are not required to have any type of education when it comes to one of the most important responsibilities of their lives—parenting.
In 1996, Katharine Bensinger was working as a mental health clinician in Chicago. Each day, she witnessed many children and parents who had experienced trauma, which included small children with anxiety and behavior problems, adolescents who had attempted suicide, and domestic violence.
“But I also witnessed something else. Many of these stressed out parents displayed unhealthy parenting practices that compounded their family dysfunction,” Bensinger says. “I realized a lot of the mental health problems that were happening with the families were a result of ineffective parenting. Parents didn’t have the tools that they needed to raise their children, but this wasn’t the fault of the parents. They didn’t know because they were never taught how by their own parents.”
As a result, Bensinger created the Parenting Education Program. Today, it’s called Parenting Fundamentals and since its inception, has graduated more than 7,000 parents raising over 21,000 children in the Chicagoland area and Puerto Rico. The program is on the federal registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and collects data on communication, non-violent discipline, problem solving and knowledge of child development. Classes are broken up into four different stages: parents of children ages 0 to 3, 4 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 16.
Nicholas Giangreco is a senior at Evanston Township High School. Upon being asked to describe the effects of the program on his life, he says, “The dangers imposed without proper parenting techniques is equivalent to a driver who never obtained a driver’s license. Who would travel on the highway full of unlicensed drivers? These mistakes are hurting children and diminishing their potential value to society. To this day, I have witnessed parents undermine and destroy the potential in their children—not due to lack of love, rather lack of knowledge.”
Bensinger has witnessed Parenting Fundamentals help strengthen families and increase parental involvement in their children’s education. While many parents who attend the program are mandated by the courts, DCFS or a social service agency, there are also parents who attend the classes on their own. They hear about it through word of mouth, their school, church, synagogue, or simply friends who have taken the program. All of the classes are translated in Spanish and there is a translator available for parents who speak a language other than English or Spanish.
After a long custody case, 38-year old Robert Augustin was ordered to enroll in Parenting Fundamentals. Upon completing the classes, Augustin says, “I finally learned how to listen to my kids. The classes taught me how to be more patient with my son, instead of yelling and screaming the same way my own father did to me.” He went on to say that for the first time he can look his children in the eyes and say, “I love you.” Augustin enrolled in additional parenting classes, went on to volunteer for the Parenting Fundamentals Program and eventually was hired to work for the program.
Bensinger wanted to do more to promote change. In 2014, she testified before the Illinois General Assembly to ask legislators and The Illinois State Board of Education to make parenting education a part of their early childhood education funding and require a course in parenting as a prerequisite for high school graduation. She explained that this would not only improve graduation rates, but would also reduce costs for crime control and welfare.
“Every time I hear a parent say they are no longer hitting or verbally abusing their child, they yell less, they look at and listen to their child when they are talking to them, they are reading to their child, they are proud of their child’s improved grades, when they tell me that they have learned a new ‘language,’ a language that was not spoken to them growing up, then every day I get up and fundraise for this program because parents change,” Bensinger says.
UPDATE: Parenting Fundamentals program is now part of Metropolitan Family Services. For more information on the Parenting Fundamentals program or to donate, contact Program Director Katharine Bensinger at Metropolitan Family Services, 1 North Dearborn, Suite. 1000, 773-371-3709, or e-mail [email protected]. You can find them on Facebook too.
Photo courtesy of Katharine Bensinger